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Reconstructing the Tantric Body (Part IV)

The Body is Identical to the Cosmos

The body as finite and the outer layer as its extension is an experience that has been both shaped by evolution and reframed by culture. This experience of the self as constrained is at the core of human suffering. In order to displace this mental construct, which is behind most of our habit patterns (saṁskāra), contemplative practices establish a parallel between the cosmos and the divine body. Tantras extend this concept to the human body. Although the equation of the body with the cosmos is very ancient in India, the ubiquity of this concept in Tantric literature makes it one of its defining characteristics. The relationship between the human body, the divine image, and the sacrificial altar is commonplace in the Vedic literature. Even the rituals related to the disintegration of the body echo the same concept that the body mirrors the totality (Timalsina 2008a). The Jain depiction of Lokapuruṣa demonstrates that this concept is pan- Indian and not restricted to Vedic or Tantric Hinduism alone. It is also reflected in the tradition of Vāstu.


The correlation of the body with the cosmos is one of the threads that tie the Vedic Agnicayana with Tantric maṇḍalas. Just as the Vedic altar is constructed in proportion to the sacrificer’s body, suggesting that the altar is the extended body of the sacrificer, Tantric visualizations correlate the body with the maṇḍala. Vedic rituals link the layers of the main altar with the breath and body parts of Prajāpati (Śatapathabrāhmaṇa 8.7.4.19–21). This identity is described in the Chāndogyopani‚ad (5.18.2) in terms of the relationship between Viśva and Vaiśvānara, or the individual and collective consciousness.


By adding two key concepts, the Tantric perspective on the body expands upon the antecedent literature that posits the body as mirroring the totality. The concept that “the body is the cosmos” (piṇḍa-brahmāṇḍa), which is repeated in various terms in both Tantric and Haṭhayoga literature, confirms the body as both the cosmic and ecological center. The next concept, that the phenomenal reality experienced in the felt body is the mirror image of the absolute (biṁba-pratibiṁba), describes the monistic Tantric cosmogony.


Mahārthamañjarī reiterates in explicit terms that the body is of the nature of the cosmos. This is further explained in the Nāth literature. The deity image is understood as embodying the same concept, clearly described in the depiction of Navātman or Ānandabhairava: “The supreme Lord of the nature of the highest bliss is comprised of nine circles (vyūha)” (cited in Lakṣmīdharā’s commentary on Saundaryalaharī 34).


Bhairava, the supreme Lord of the Tantrics, is invoked as Navātman, or “the one comprised of nine.” These nine vyūhas include time (kāla), form (kula), name (nāma), cognition (jñāna), mind (citta), sound (nāda), drop (bindu), the limiting digits (kalā), and the embodied self (jīva) (cited in Lakṣmīdharā, Saundaryalaharī 34). Through identifying the body of Navātman with that of the viewer, the process of visualization uses the image as a template, and what has been visualized is the concept of this cosmic embodiment.


Tantras describe their central concept of the world mirroring the supreme reality in terms of counter-image (pratibimba), where every entity mirrors the totality and is an image of the supreme Lord (Tantrāloka 3.44). Just as Śiva is an embodiment of bliss and awareness, all that exists has these properties dormant within. This complex mirroring process that culminates with the identity of body, cosmos, and the self is fundamental to the ritual of visualization (Vijñānabhairava 63, 65). Tantras highlight this concept with the use of terms such as completeness (pūrṇatā) or “complete I-sense” (pūrṇāhantā).


The Body as an Extension of Bliss and Awareness

What makes Tantric visualizations distinctive is that such practices are designed to re-map mental presuppositions. The body is the platform for these transformative practices, since it is the body upon which cultural experiences are inscribed. In order to dismantle the pre-existing framework, Tantras propose a non-dual paradigm wherein the body is an extension of the self. A frequently cited line in Trika texts, attributed to Kallaṭa, “at first, consciousness transforms into prāṇa,” depicts the life force as the first emanation of consciousness. Without discrediting the transcendental nature of the self qua consciousness, Tantras portray the self as transformed into an embodied state through the adoption of various prāṇic states. The seven levels of subjects (pramātr̥) are generally shown vertically in Tantric images, with the lower level of subject at the lower realm. This resembles the Upaniṣadic depiction of the subject experiencing bliss. In this vertical portrayal, both bliss and awareness, the core constituents of the self, are expressed in relation to the level at which a deity is depicted. The deities sitting above other deities on the lower strata, for this reason, reach a higher level of bliss. While the deity on top depicts the essential nature of bliss and awareness (cidānanda), the subordinate deities (the seats for the higher deities), describe a limited level of bliss due to confined awareness. In this multiple mirroring process, subordinate mirror images are portrayed as lacking completeness.


Borrowed from its earlier application to refer to the “clan,” Tantras use the term kula also to denote the “body.” With the use of the term to also describe the world comprised of thirty-six Kaula categories, Kaulas identify both the body and the cosmos as referents of kula. Tantric imagery primarily relies on the Kaula system which maintains that the self is immanent (Pratyabhijñāhr̥daya 8) and the supreme divinity is embodied (Nityāṣoḍaśikārṇava 4.5cd). Rather than transcending the body, Kaulas therefore seek liberation within the body. The liberating experience is described in terms of the surge of the “cosmic bliss” (jagadānanda) that permeates all the lower strata of bliss. Bhairava images, specifically those of Ānandabhairava, represent materialization of this experience. In this understanding, the body is distilled bliss, bondage is the lack of this awareness, and awakening is the gradual surge of bliss that expands the limit of somatic awareness and gives the sense of totality while being within the body.


Kaulas do not separate carnal bliss from the exalted experience of self-awareness. In this paradigm, sensory pleasure is the manifest form of the very self that is identical to bliss. The dissolution of the polarity of subjects, felt during sexual union, becomes a metaphor for the Kaulas to describe the liberating experience. The image of Kālī and Bhairava in their sexual union (yuganaddha) depicts this oneness of bliss and awareness felt at the moment when the senses are engaged with their objects. The primacy of erotic experience found in the language describing mystical states parallels the images of Caṇḍeśvara and Unmattabhairava.


In the above discussion, the argument that Tantras aim to transform early dualistic symbolism into a non-dual metaphor for describing reality has been made explicit. This process also changes a rather compromised view of being trapped within a body into a positive experience of being the body. By altering the application of language and shifting the mode of experience from outward-looking to inward or by touching the immediate mode of sensation in the pursuit of mystical experience, these visualization techniques aim to enable the practitioner to reach the nondual state of experience. While this non-dual experience is a consequence of a systematic alteration of some of the early metaphors and the way we are trained to interpret our somatic experiences, the process culminates with deconstructing what is culturally or linguistically given. Since the body is “maimed” through cultural presuppositions, it is evident that Tantric visualization, with its focus on the body, attempts to modify those understandings.


What has been explicitly demonstrated in this paper is that the goal of visualization practices is not to shape experience, but rather to untie the constructs that have shaped our experience. Through the process of deconstructing the way we are accustomed to interpret our experience, particularly somatic experience, Tantric practice seeks to give the individual the ability to reach to the heart of experience. This process requires a double construction, wherein dismantling the first set of constructions functions as a portal to the core of experience. In essence, the very evolutionary process that allows us to shape certain experiences and interpret them in specific ways is altered through the visualization processes that utilize language, specifically mantra language, as a mechanism in this process of transformation.


Rather than regarding the body that is immediately given to experience as a figment of the imagination or subordinate to the self, Tantric visualizations center on altered visions of the body. These body-centric meditations do not, however, reduce the self to the body. Rather, in this depiction, what is somatically felt becomes the base from which to reach higher meditative states and ultimately the self itself. Both somatic stimulation and the transformation of bodily sensations aim to replace the limited vision of everyday experience with the experience of embodied totality or the self as Śiva, wherein bodily awareness surpasses the human skin and envelops the cosmos.


(Excerpts from Ācārya Sthaneshwar Timalsina's article "Reconstructing the Tantric Body: Elements of the Symbolism of the Body in the Monistic Kaula and Trika Tantric Traditions.")



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